Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Living in Tirana: A Collection of Sights on the Street

I cleaned out my computer and found a bunch of random pictures, all the way back to my first month here. For your viewing pleasure:
On the way to Tiara's house

Drunken guy selling shoes and brandishing a fake gun.

Celebrate good times, come on! 
Power lines a bit too close for comfort...

Monday, November 26, 2012

Coming to Albania

I've been wearing this song out.

I'm singing the title of this blog post in my head to the tune of "Living in America", which is two layers relevant since my friends, who live in America, are coming to Albania. Layers of relevant- mmmm, I want cake now. Wait, I get cake tomorrow! Here's why...

Bri and Timmie touch down at Rinas Airport tomorrow at 4 p.m., and they should be in my neck of the woods around 4:30. Since today is Tim's birthday, I went to my favorite bakery here in Tirana and got him a cake. I even went all out with cups, plates, and napkins. Between my love of cleaning, cooking for other people, taking copious amounts of group pictures, and throwing birthday parties I'm the best 1950's mom ever, minus the kids and plus 62 years.

Tomorrow is also the start of my 5 day vacation. I know what you're thinking- vacation, again? Do you ever work? Yes, I do, and yes, that's a sweet perk of being a teacher (yes, it was a consideration when I took this career path). However, this school vacation is unique because it is in celebration of 100 years of independence for Albania. When I moved to Albania I had no idea I'd be living here during their 100 year celebration, but once I found out I was grateful for the opportunity to witness it.

Towns have slowly become more and more flag and banner covered. Starting as early as late October flags began cropping up, and slowly more and more bunting and banners and fliers and ribbons have filled in the spaces to join everything together in a huge red and black takeover of the city. In the last two weeks there has been an exponential increase in preparations. Each day on my walk to work or the grocery store or to meet up with friends I see something new adorning a wall or the side of a building, and even the lamp posts are now black and red swirled. A huge, black, double headed eagle now sits in the middle of my nemesis, the traffic circle Zogu i Zi, and the circle itself is ringed with banners and flags. It definitely makes wading across the sea of traffic a bit more celebratory in the mornings when I congratulate myself for once again not getting hit by a car or a bus or a motorcycle going the wrong way.

Last minute construction and beautification projects are also springing up at an alarming pace. The most recent involved tilling up all the land and sidewalk in a small triangular park on our street. Since the sidewalk is gone, one must now walk in the street, which unfortunately does not have a shoulder. The center is also encircled with red and black columns, banners, and flags. The land is tilled up in some areas around the grass there, too, and it looks as though last minute sidewalk repairs are being completed. Another huge double headed eagle stands in front of the Skanderbeg statue (pictured in my blog header). The Albanian eagle is such a unique and strong symbol, and paired with all the black and red everything looks gloriously militaristic and proud. I can't quite put into words how I feel when I see all of the decorations, but it makes me happy to see the joy in everyone as they gear up for the celebration. Albania has had a difficult past, and independence means a great deal.

We plan to take Bri and Tim down to Gjirokaster, by way of Fier and Vlore. I know that I wasn't that into Vlore the first time, but as I mentioned it is the site where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and where the Albania flag was waved from what is now known as Independence Balcony. I'm sure we'll be in for a huge celebration when we stop by. We're also planning on seeing the ruins of Apollonia near Fier. Finally, we land in Gjirokaster for two nights. After driving through Gjirokaster on our way home from Saranda and catching a brief view of the old town I cannot wait to finally spend time there. Since driving has worked out so well for us thus far we're renting a car again. This makes our pit stops in Vlore and Fier much more manageable, without having to drag ourselves on and off buses with all of our things, or having to arrange timetables. I'm excited to give Bri and Tim a good old fashioned Albanian road trip!

I head straight from work to pick up the boys, and then it's going to be a non-stop independence vacation visitors from America party for the next 5 days. I'll see ya'll on the flip side. Hopefully not of our car. Just, you know, the normal, safe, not related to cars flip side.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Exceeding the Limits

My first blog was a result of being forced onto MySpace in December of 2005, when I was living in Japan. I say forced without really meaning it, but it's true that my old school e-mails were responded to with crickets since all my friends were cavorting together in the virtual space of that now basically defunct site. I hopped on, created a profile, and soon fell head over heels in love with blogging as the perfect way to keep everyone filled in on my life in Japan, as well as keep up with their lives stateside. Here is the first post, from 22 year old me:

Hello everyone! I have finally accepted that there is no life without myspace, as all of you have been telling me. However, as you all also know, my computer knowledge consists of standing up, walking across the apartment, and asking who ever actually knows how to do anything how to do something. So, please be patient with what will probably be, for quite a while, my eyesore of the myspace world.

It is snowing here and I'm feeling all Christmasy- kind of gooey inside. We went caroling last night, much to the amusement of everyone passing by. Honestly they probably thought to themselves "Great, so this is what happens when we let these foreigners into our country- they get drunk off of cheap convenience store beer and then sing off key outside the train station!" We actually tried to move inside, but were politely kicked out by a police officer who was shorter and smaller than myself. So. A good time was had by all.

 On the work front my children are badly to horribly behaved, although there are quite a few exceptions, and those few I am clinging to for dear life and sanity. I have one little darling who seems more preoccupied with throwing blocks at me than learning English, and a few others who choose to use their time in my class to clean out their nostrils and then suck the contents from underneath their fingernails. Then we all pass the vocab cards around and it feels a little like bacteria roulette. But, honestly, I can't complain. Japan is a beautiful, safe, great country. I am learning to play these huge drums, it's called "taiko", and it's so amazing to hear. My Japanese lessons are going really well, and I think I'm picking it up pretty quickly. I've met people from all over the world, and although I was already a very open minded person, I have discovered that there is always room to grow more than you ever could have thought. When I'm walking around after dark, and I feel safe, and I pass by a six year old, in a little school uniform with a pointless but adorable yellow hat, walking home alone, I think "Japan rocks". Of course, when I am squatting over a Japanese style toilet in a train station bathroom that smells like open sewer, only to realize I forget my toilet paper- well the sentiment is different.

Somewhere around this time I communicated with an old film professor of mine, who basically said "Ew, MySpace? Have I taught you nothing? Have you no standards of creation? No no no, check out this new thing, called Blogger. You can easily upload pictures and make posts and have your own website apart from MySpace." I was too lazy to move to yet another site, was wrapped up in traveling and teaching, and also just kind of forgot to check it out. Plus, at the time, I didn't even have a digital camera. I photographed the first half of my Japan experience with disposable cameras. Yes, that's right, not even a real film camera- disposable cameras. Oh, Kyoto. I'm so sorry I captured you that way. I hope you can forgive me.

After I came home from Japan I kept up the old blog until everyone left for Facebook, at which point I finally checked out this Blogger thing in the beginning of 2009. Dammit, it was as easy as my professor had said! Plus, it was much nicer than the bedazzled armpit of auto play songs and skeevy pics of wanna be "models" that MySpace had become. I was a convert.

Around this time I got more into blogging, and reading more blogs, and over a few years it became clear that a shift had happened from the often anonymous, wall of text journal like entries, to lifestyle blogs where the writer was some kind of star in their own home decorating catalog/online arts and crafts fair. Everyone, it seemed, was a professional photographer, and somehow knew how to wear clothes and pose in them, often with a cute dog/baby/husband/all three. Cupcakes were a thing, even though they were, in my world, still just small cakes for lazy people, and apparently pigeon toed feet desperately needed to be documented lest one forget what kind of shoes one owned, or, worse, what one's feet looked like. The ratio of pictures to text slowly but surely flipped. Before, most blogs I read had no pictures- they were on Live Journal, or they were on MySpace, for one, but for two most people didn't have digital cameras (dating myself all over the internet tonight, huh?) or if they did, it was cumbersome to upload pictures.

I've read apologies from bloggers for "long" posts with no pictures, or "get ready, this one's epic!" when they clock in at a puny two paragraphs. Two paragraphs does hardly a wall of text make, in my  rambleblog book. A part of me thinks it's kind of sad that people can't read a few paragraphs without needing to be distracted, like a raccoon, with a shiny pretty photo. Is your attention span so short that it can't be tasked with reading a few paragraphs and working with your imagination in order to create the pictures for you, in your brainhole? I like pictures as much as the next person lucky enough to have working eyes, but not because I don't want to read, it's because I like a nice picture. I mean, I'm an adult. I don't read picture books in general unless I'm in teacher mode with kids at the carpet who are squiggling around my feet, so I can hang with words-only posts.

The point of all this is that I've run out of free storage space for images, thanks to having my American road trip blog on this account, too. The thing is I don't even want to blog without being able to add in pictures, which is strange because for so many years I happily blogged without being able to add in pictures. I'm clearly not against photo blogs or picture heavy posts. I mean, this is coming from the girl who has exceeded her photo limit; I'm not trying to be a Luddite. I like pictures to add to the story, instead of telling it for me, and yeah, I still like the option of having a picture here and there. This means that I will be giving Blogger some cash in exchange for image storage space. I'm just speaking more to the general trend of blogs being more about pictures than about writing, and more about presenting images than about telling stories. I remember reading so many hilarious, anonymous blogs that were totally picture free. The writing was incredible, and I looked forward to it like new chapters in a favorite book. I don't remember any pictures, at all.

Sure, there will be a lot of photos on this blog. Yes, I like taking random pictures, and sometimes they do perfectly capture a moment in time in a way words can't. The storage space will soon be purchased, and happily used. But there will also be walls of text, like this post that is pointless but gives me a space in which to think and write. That's the primary reason I like to blog- I like to write. I enjoy it, even if no one is reading. I like going back and reading old posts and being able to remember everything so clearly, because I wrote it down. I like telling stories, and I like navel gazing, rambleblogs that help me work out things in my head.

I also like earplugs, for kind of drowning out the sound of the herd of children above my head. It sounds like they are dragging all the furniture of the house from one end to the other, while playing pots as drums. And screamlaughing. Lots of screamlaughing. I'd take a picture of my ceiling and pair it with a cutesy photo of me frownsmiling and pointing to my earplugs, but unfortunately I'm all out of storage space...

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Visas and Homes

We were never 100% sure that Bobby would be able to secure a residency visa, but we had logical reasons to be fairly confident. I was working in the country, we were on a notarized lease together, he and I both have clean background checks, and he has the required amount of money in savings to show that he isn't planning on moving to Albania and becoming a "drain on society" (I hate that term, but that's not the point of this post). However, when it comes to living overseas, you have to be prepared for anything.

Bobby was ultimately denied his visa three weeks ago, so he left last weekend. He'll be back in three months, once he's able to legally. He smartly left a week earlier than he had to, so he has a week to play with if he has to come back in case of an emergency. Now, I know many people make mention of how easy it is to get around visa issues in Albania, and I'm sure many people have been able to stay many months, or even years, over the three months in six months official stance. However, we want to respect the stated laws of the country (even if many do not, and even if it's easy to get around) and we also couldn't chance it not working and resulting in Bobby getting deported. Since Bobby is also recently looking for work, it seemed propitious, in a way, that he can go back to America and send out his resume, interview, and hopefully land something else. In the meantime, things at work are in a nice even routine, I'm learning more Albanian by the day, and I have a great support system here. Nothing can ever replace Bobby being here, but I lived in Japan alone at the age of 22 with far less support than I have here almost a decade later. That definitely helps.

I'm not one for showy, emotional displays in public, so while this is usually the place to end by waxing poetic about love and how great one's significant other is, and how perfect they are, I'll just say I miss him every day and can't wait for him to come home. Take my word for it that I have more reasons than I could put in a simple blog post for why I think he's fantastic. Three months will fly by, if the last three are any indication.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

From Hand Drawn Comics to Undisclosed Lice: An Analysis of the Spectrum of Couchsurfing Experiences

A fine looking Ex-Pat-Pack at Tirana Rocks

My favorite form of travel magic, when living and working overseas, is stumbling into finding fantastic people with whom to share the journey. Ex-pat life brings people of all nationalities together, bound by the commonality of being foreigners in a new place. Thanks to the internet and social networking, it’s become easier and easier to make these connections. One of the most popular places to make these connections is Couchsurfing, a huge hub of travelin’, likeminded strangers, gathering together online to give and take lodging, free of charge. The tagline of "stay with friends you haven't met yet" is endearing, right? Couchsurfing can take responsibility for often fostering interesting, brief encounters with strangers from all over the world, complete with late nights over good food exchanging travel stories, tips, and future plans and dreams for roaming the globe. The people you meet via Couchsurfing are bound to be interesting, for better or worse. I’m sure no one is surprised that there is, of course, a flip side to the positive. It’s not necessarily negative, but it’s not as enjoyable, or idealistic, and is often tedious and annoying. Hey, we’re all people, messy piles of humanity, it’s bound to happen. I can’t say I would consistently be an enjoyable person to be around after weeks and/or months of snatching sleep on a parade of strangers’ couches, indulging in intermittent showers and cobbling together each leg of the trip right before I do it.

Now, until last weekend, I had never formerly hosted a Couchsurfer. Scott was a frequent host in the first month or so here in Tirana. Through him, Bobby and I enjoyed the pleasure of several couchsurfers, from Julius, who went to Dirty Durres with us and in turn baked an onion cake, to Anna, who stayed for a few days before leaving the best tiramisu I’ve ever eaten, to Dameon, who crafted golden origami cranes out of the wrappers from the chocolate I gave him. We used the cranes to decorate the top of Bobby’s 33rd birthday cake. We shared dinners and gave advice, and altogether it was a ridiculously charming situation of people giving and taking, sharing in community. Ah, community. My liberal heart is bleeding all over the keyboard. It’s beautiful.

Excitement builds while waiting for the onion cake

A long-life crane: perhaps the most perfect birthday cake topper

 The indisputably best outcome of Couchsurfing, however, came not from a traditional couchsurfer host relationship. One can use Couchsurfing as a way to meet-up with people, and there are frequent social events. To that end, Malwine reached out to Tiara around the time of the Tirana film festival, and it was love at first sight. 19, from Germany, an artist, also working in a school, and most importantly, one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, Malwine easily joined our group. 

This was the night we told Malwine about the Canadian tuxedo, made famous by Bryan Adams

From there it was pastry parties and nights out and cursing in English with a Texas accent lessons and roadtrips to Macedonia. 

She drew this comic for Bobby, to illustrate that roadtrip and the weekend in Ohrid. I can’t handle how much I love it.

Really. I don’t deserve the humans in my pack here in Albania. What luck.

But rainbows and kittens notwithstanding, let’s get back to that flip side I referenced. After so many positive experiences co-hosting Scott’s couchsurfers from across the hall, and being gifted by the couchsurfing universe with Malwine, she of all that is Good and Wonderful, I thought it was finally time to get in on some of this feel good action directly. I made a profile. I set my couch to “Maybe”, so I could meet for coffee and help travelers, dipping my toe in before going whole hog there’s-a-stranger-sleeping-in-my-house. A few days after, Scott said he had received a couchsurfing request from a group of three travelers. In the interest of respect, I’ll refer to them as Trio. One was from my home state of Texas, which seemed like fate, so I told Scott that Bobby and I could split Trio between our two homes. We picked them up on Sunday, and caught up over some snacks before heading out for dinner. They regaled us with stories, they were interesting and funny, and all was well. We stayed up far too late, and then it was off to the factory school for the teachers on Monday morning.

Monday afternoon I came home to a well-used home, but hey, no big deal, let’s clean real quick like and I’ll make dinner. I cooked a huge pot of Indian curry (mmmm, vegetables) while Bobby and Scott had an after work beer and gave Trio advice on how to rent a car, and where to go down south. Malwine, she of all that is Good and Wonderful, came over, as well as Tiara, my oft mentioned and also kick ass co-worker. We ate, drank, and were merry. We gave Trio more information on their travel plans, and again, got to bed too late.

Tuesday night we picked up another couchsurfer, and Wednesday evening the plan was to meet up at Malwine’s house. She was making byrek, and I was making a roast of the meat I had received from Eid al-Adha. At this point there had been little of the give and take harmony I had witnessed in previous couchsurfer/host interactions. By “little” I mean “none”, so I was happy when Trio asked if there was anything they could bring to dinner. Bobby said yes, they could bring dessert or perhaps some wine.

Well, spoiler alert- they brought neither. And they didn’t buy water the four nights they were here, instead opting to drink ours. And yes, they were kind of messy. But you know what? I’m totally willing to let all of it slide. They were young, and genuinely sweet, and I happily agreed to let them come back to our house after a road trip to the south. They even left their things in my apartment, because why not? We have an extra room. Let’s help them out. They left trash and dirty dishes in their wake, but I let it roll off after some good natured ribbing with Scott, Bobby, and Tiara. 

Trio came home on Saturday night, right before the Fabulous Four of us headed out for dinner. We let Trio in for showers and laundry, wished them a good night, and set out. We came home a few hours later, to find them out to dinner of their own. Scott walked into his bathroom, which had towels strewn on the floor, along with random bits of their detritus- ribbon and rubber bands and random road treasures like scraps of paper. More curiously, the flap of a box poked out from under a towel heaped at the base of the washer. Scott picked it up, froze, and then turned and said “What’s THIS?”

What WAS this? I stepped into the square of light from the bathroom, and beheld the object of his disbelief.

Dear Two Blog Readers-
It was a box. of. lice. shampoo. That’s what it was. The nit comb sat on the edge of the sink, complete, almost artistically so, with a perfectly placed louse.


What in the actual f$#k?

Lest you think I’m a terrible person, I should preface the following rant by saying that I am in no way mad that they got lice. I’m a primary school teacher, ya’ll- I could get lice tomorrow. It happens, they’re traveling, and that sucks. But, pray, tell me, who stays in a stranger’s house, realizes the lice problem, and simply shampoos and goes out for dinner like it’s any old Saturday night? Who, dear Reader, leaves the box on the floor, mixed among other personal items, letting the box do all the talking? I cannot imagine finding out I had lice, and deciding that the best way to deal with it would be to flippantly wash my hair and then leave the house for dinner. No, I would be cleaning the house, washing my clothes, washing the sheets and towels of my host, and most importantly, I would for damn sure be waiting at the house so that as soon as my host arrived home I could tell them immediately.

In contrast, we came home to two silent apartments, clothes and towels spread about the house, no clothes in either of the washing machines available to Trio, and nothing but a discarded box and a louse bespeckled comb to tell us the story of what had happened while we were gone.

We immediately got to work doing what Trio should have done- washing the sheets, the towels, sweeping up for hair, wiping down couches, and generally rolling our eyes at the complete ridiculousness of the situation. Scott sent a text that simply asked “So who has lice?” and Trio said they would come home soon. Malwine had slept in the bed the night after they left, so I immediately thought of her curly little head. I gave in to a good old fashioned rant, ending with “And so help me, if they gave Malwine, whose soul is like fine gossamer, LICE, I will lose it.” Even in the midst of parasite invasion, one must have humor, and one must think of one’s sweet German friend.

I don't drink, but this situation calls for a drink

Once Trio returned, I had to play teacher lady and give a lecture about the socially acceptable way to go about dealing with a lice infestation when one is staying in a gracious host’s home free of charge. Trio seemed genuinely baffled as to why the situation was inappropriate, which just made me sigh and remind myself that kids have to be told how to act. I didn’t yell, I wasn’t mad, but I was beyond annoyed and I had reached the point where couchsurfing had flipped from a social adventure to “When are they leaving?” 

I gave my short and stern “Guys, it’s just plain weird the way you handled this, flat out. Don’t do it like this again. BTW, you all need to wash your hair and all of your clothes” speech and then went to bed. I made sure to end it with “Have safe travels” which I sincerely meant.

I’m about to be 30. I feel like I can officially say “Kids these days.” My good friend, Gordon, summed it up nicely when he said "I don't care how chatty your lice box is." That's a true story.*

*And this one is told with a wink. I find it all highly amusing, to be sure.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Saranda Part II: A Road Trip in the Sky, Following the Sea

On the edge of the world

Two roads diverge in the area of Vlore, and it is here you choose your own adventure to get to Saranda:

1) The winding, switchbacking, rickety guardrailed old coastal road with sweeping, majestic views of the sea


2) The new inland route that is described as "safer and faster"

Everyone knows that a good road trip isn't just about getting there, so despite such tempting adjectives as "safer and faster" the coastal road won out for the trip down. We figured that on the way back we'd be tired and just want to get home, whereas on the way down we'd still find 90 degree mountain turns and a lack of shoulder charming instead of terrifying. The coastal road turned out to be truly amazing. I think we passed only two or three cars during the two hours we criss crossed the road wrapped along the edge of the mountains. I've rarely felt that alone while driving on a highway, but it was peaceful instead of disconcerting. The sea ran along below us, and when we would make a switchback there was nothing between us and the far below valley but misty air- the world just dropped off. Cows would appear around corners, placidly chewing their cud despite the death drop behind them. When we would descend in a winding spiral into a rocky and grass covered canyon the goats and chickens would be found roaming freely. Bomb shelters crouched in the grass and bulged out of the foot hills. The weather was almost too perfect, the sun was shining, and we stopped often to take in the view. It felt like we were exploring a new planet, it was so empty and quiet. We started referring to ourselves as "the only people left in the world" or describing the scene as peacefully post-apocalyptic, a feeling that would only heighten once we reached a sleepy, off-season Saranda. The coastal road drive was dizzying, and it seemed we were in the mountains switchbacking our way through for a very long time due to how diligently we had to pay attention to the road. I would still highly recommend doing it, at least once.

Scott, posing like the cloud in the background

Up in the clouds

That long and winding road

Let's just hope it continues around that curve...

Behind those cows? The yawning abyss.

Here's a video I shot during one of the calmer portions, when I felt more comfortable hanging out the window. You can turn off the sound, since it's just whistling wind. I suppose I could have edited out the sound, added in an introspective road trip jam, and applied a hipster filter, but I'm far too lazy for all of that. Also, I don't know how to do any of that anyway.

We passed through a few small villages built into the side of the mountains, but it wasn't until we zig-zagged in descent to sea level that we came to a proper town, Himare. After catching glimpses of the sea while winding through the mountains we were finally able to stop right on the coast and get to the water.

This ain't no Durres, that's for sure

I find that a predominant emotion during these road trips through the countryside is joy at being in nature. Tirana has its positives but it is, in the end, a concrete jungle. Much like the giddy joy I felt upon first seeing Lake Ohrid, this stretch of Himare's coast turned me into a puppy. It was so beautiful that I was moved to curse about it and insult an as yet unseen Saranda, which really wasn't fair.

After Himare, the road arched up again. It was more hilly and forested than mountainous and coastal, and thus a little more laid back to drive. The towns we passed through started popping up closer and closer together, and as it was now late morning we saw more people and their livestock on the roads. Old women ambled down the highway with little concern for the fact that highways often have cars, donkeys and cows were prodded along as they took up half the lane, and this mama pig nonchalantly nursed on the shoulder, not even flinching at the cars rolling past her.

I'm appalled. She didn't even bother to use a cover-up.
As we closed in on Saranda we stopped just outside of town for a bathroom break at a cafe on clearing overlooking the valley. At first glance, it seemed to be closed for the season, but another traveling motto I have is "I just want to see if...", so we stopped. Tiara had, smartly so, crouched discreetly behind an old wooden staircase in Himare. I missed this golden opportunity, but my poor bladder decisions proved fortuitous in the end. The owner was on site and showed me to a bathroom providing not just a toilet seat, but toilet paper, and not just soap, but water, AND a towel with which to dry my hands. While I was Snoopy dancing over unexpected bathroom blessings, Tiara and the boys were buying breakfast beer. This would continue to happen during our off-season trip: random establishments that looked completely closed up for the season would be open and they would happily serve us, their only customers.

Taverne Filipas, we love you. We honestly do.

Breakfast beer was served at the edge of the clearing on a picnic table. A pomegranate tree loaded with fruit was within reach, so we picked one to snack on. The resident dog wriggled around our feet, probably disappointed that we weren't eating something more meaty. I can't say if it was the fresh air, the bright blue table, the view, or the superb company, but it was the best pomegranate I've ever had.

Life is hard.

I was profoundly happy and grateful to be on a hilltop clearing, eating a pomegranate with super traveling partners and petting a dusty, strange dog. At barely 11 a.m. Saranda was within our sights, we hadn't gotten lost or slipped off the side of the highway, and we were enjoying an unexpected picnic. Thinking to yourself "This has been a great day" before noon even rolls around is a successful road trip, as far as I'm counting.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Saranda Part I: Security Comes Cheap in Vlore, but Mind the Highway Rabbits

As a teacher, I'm beginning to realize that as much as I loved school vacations as a student, I appreciate them so much more now that I'm on the other side of the equation. Thanks to Mother Teresa Day, we had a three day weekend in which to hike and fall in love with Lake Ohrid in Macedonia.  The very next weekend, we had four days off for Eid al-Adha. This time, the credit goes to the Muslims instead of the Catholics, and on top of it, we were given piles of meat upon our return to school.
Scott and I, enjoying the perks of being an overseas teacher. 

But that's jumping ahead, so let's get back to the story at hand.

We (Bobby and I plus Tiara and Scott) planned a trip down south to Saranda. Less than an hour from Greece, it's known for the best beaches in the country, and the B.C. ruins of Butrint National Park. It takes a ridiculous amount of time to get there due to road conditions, so a normal weekend couldn't hack it. We were also holding out some hope that the Ionian sea would still be welcoming at the beginning of fall, and we didn't want to miss our window. All of these considerations sealed the deal for Saranda. After our trip to Macedonia we were armed with confidence that we could drive in Albania and not die or get lost, so we rented the same car (Tiara was ecstatic, I'm sure, that her box of tissues from the weekend before was waiting for her just where she'd left it) and headed off after work on Wednesday.

One annoyance of planning a road trip in Albania is that you never know when to trust Google Maps when it comes to time, and sometimes, you cannot even trust it when it comes to where there may or may not be roads. Albania is building new roads and renovating old ones at a rapid pace, so this is understandable. I'd like to note that in the Google maps directions to Vlore, it actually lists things like "pass by *insert landmark* on your right" or "turn right at *insert landmark* after 1 kilometer", which I have never seen before in their driving directions.

Since we didn't want to drive after dark and we couldn't count on most of the internet estimates we decided to stop in Vlore for the night before heading on to Saranda Thursday morning. The road from Tirana to Vlore is (mostly) brand new and well constructed, after an initial rough patch right outside of Tirana that was gravelly and void of any signs as to where one should drive if one was desiring to stay in what is commonly referred to as "a lane." Once we hit the new blacktop it was smooth sailing. Don't let the modernity fool you, though- as we zipped along at a pace that was more than likely over the speed limit, we all shrieked in fear as a man, wedged between the columns of a bridge, zealously shook an enormous rabbit in our windshield. While I gave him points for sheer shock value in marketing, it was hard for me to imagine such an approach working. Who, when driving down the highway, sees the flailing hindquarter of a rabbit almost kick the windshield and thinks "That looks like a most delicious dinner option"? We also pondered whether or not the rabbit would be sold alive or dead, and determined it would probably be dead. On the way back we saw the same man in the same spot, so I guess his tactics are working.

Rabbit hindquarters turned out to be the most excitement of the drive, and we pulled into Vlore only about two hours after we left Tirana*. We found our hotel fairly easily thanks to the GPS, but what resulted afterward was a little circuitous. We knocked on the door and found an old man who seemed to be working there, and then waited on the sidewalk while two more men joined the party, hemming and hawing among themselves, gesturing to us. They made us move our car closer, and then closer again. One called the person with whom Tiara had actually made the reservation, so that Tiara could speak to him in English over the phone and then he could translate directions in Albanian. The "hotel" was a school that looked abandoned, and we were to stay in the dorm rooms. Once prices had been worked out- a mere 1,000 leke a person- we followed the old man up the stairs. He was friendly and helpful as he showed us around the room, gesturing to blankets and towels and acting out how we were to use them, and demonstrating how to use each key and in what door.

Then he launched into his sales pitch. Cobbling together what little Albanian we have gathered over the last two months, we worked out that he was talking about our car, parking, security, and 500 leke. We promptly paid him and he left. At this point, the payment was more to be left alone than to be assured of any vigilant watch over our rental car. Points are given to the hotel for being cheap and spotless, having clean sheets and comfortable beds, and providing us with electricity and water that were not interrupted. The balcony was crammed with old school desks, the advertised free internet did not exist, and we were lucky to have brought an emergency toilet paper roll, but for a "let's stop here to break up a drive before we continue on to the main event" kind of place, those things don't warrant annoyance. I'd stay there again for sure, but I won't even bother sharing the name because I've forgotten it.

Vlore welcomes you

Since Vlore was a pit stop we didn't look into anything to do there, so we can hopefully be forgiven for thinking it was a less than desirable vacation spot. The town was kind of dumpy, dingy, and industrial, with all the hassles of Tirana but none of the conveniences or cosmopolitan capital feel. We set off to look for dinner after an internet search yielded approximately 3 results, all of which garnered reviews that could be summed up with an apathetic "meh" accompanied by a shoulder shrug. Usually walking through a city endears me to it more than driving through it, but in this case I just disliked Vlore even more. We walked down the main boulevard, lined with palm trees and celebratory Albanian flags, but in the off season it looked like a carnival whose patrons had left. I expected to see Templeton scurrying through, singing about smorgasbords. The water seemed to be "that way" so we headed out for an evening beach walk, but when we got there the boulevard disintegrated into shoddily done concrete work, dirt, and general construction before rambling on and finally dead ending into a concrete embankment. Beyond the embankment was the port, in all its rotten egg smelling hazy air glory. I'm sure the beaches everyone raves about were further on down the shore, but I have to say, after experiencing a beach near the port of Durres I was glad we were heading many hours further south the next morning.

We gave up on interesting and/or good food options and settled for Kolonat, which is a rip-off, aesthetically speaking, of McDonald's. See for yourself:

You remind me of something...

I just can't...quite...put my finger on it

Kolonat was, somehow, even worse than the fast food chain which it references. We finished off the night with some cake, coffee, and ice cream. Don't mind Scott's face, he was actually quite happy. We were just talking about some of our more terrible difficult students, and the classroom idiosyncrasies that make them so frustrating unique.
You mean to tell me I might have to teach his brother??
The night ended with a stop at the grocery store to stock up on food for the next day. In Japan, my go to convenience snack was onigiri (rice triangles filled with pickled vegetables, or tuna, or some other type of fish, wrapped in nori) or cold soba noodles. Here in Albania, my go to convenience food is a can of tuna and a sack of bake rolls. But really, doesn't this man's face just make you think "I'm hungry, and the only thing that can satisfy that hunger is a can of your tuna"?

Don't you want me, baby? Don't you want me, oh, ohohoh?

At this point we had given up on even trying to go out in Vlore, mostly since it seemed like  derelict ghost town filled with sports gambling and cafes, but also because we wanted to hit the road at daybreak to have as much time in Saranda as possible. When we got back to our hotel there was some paperwork that the strange old man wanted us to do, but no matter how many times I told him my name, pointed to it in my passport, and spelled it he kept asking for it over and over. Finally he thrust a pen in my hand and I wrote it for him. He nodded, asked us what time we were heading out in the morning, and then pointed back and forth at our car and his proud, puffed up chest to communicate that no harm would befall our vehicle under his watch.

What I'm about to admit to you is kind of pathetic, but we were in bed by 8:00. Now, look- I will take full responsibility for not even trying to make it with Vlore because I was too interested in her more interesting and attractive sister down south. Vlore is an important city in Albanian history, because that's where the Declaration of Independence was signed. After the signing, a flag was raised from a second floor balcony, now known as Independence Balcony. That being said, everything else I said above in my description of Vlore is just the truth. I'm sure it's more interesting and festive in the summer, but in October it just felt abandoned.

Before the sun rose the next day we were up and at it, packing bags and having breakfast picnics on the tile floor.

Peanut butter and banana sandwiches, tuna and bake rolls, a huge jug of communal water. We're living the dream, folks. 

Let's go to Saranda!
We had one last encounter with our old man protector, and then we set off in the direction of the mountains.

*Google was right on this money with this time estimate.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Happier News on the Human Rights Front

What I'm about to say might shock you...

This isn't primarily what this post is really about, but that's where I'm starting: four years ago, I voted for Obama. Well, back up. I didn't just vote for him. I campaigned for a year prior to his election. I served as a Precinct Chair, I was a delegate all through the primary right up to the state convention in Austin, TX, I registered fellow citizens to vote, I knocked doors, I made phone calls- I was a model of civic duty. I did all of this while working full time and going to graduate school full time, which qualifies me as a special kind of Grade A Type A Crazy. But I digress.

This year? Yeah, I moved to Albania and voted a month early via e-mail after filling out my overseas ballot online. And that was it. A little less involved (to say the least) far less interesting, and yes, much less work, but the end result is the same: Obama is in.

We were pretty sure at this point, but nothing official had been announced

One thing that isn't the same? On that night, in 2008, in the middle of all our "Yay, he won!" happiness, we received news via text message from a Californian friend: Prop 8 passed. So while everyone was celebrating, our little group was suddenly not feeling quite so hopeful.

Right after we found out he won, but clearly before we found out a majority of voters in CA hate the majority of our group

This time around, instead of a slap in the face of progressive social policy, we have the triple play of awesome that is Maine, Maryland, and Washington legalizing marriage equality. I can't adequately express how this makes me feel, so I'll let someone more eloquent take it away.

“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.”-
C. Chavez

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Picture Post: Tirana on a Saturday

In the qender

I want to believe the secret garden is behind that door.

Friendly neighborhood mandarins.

If these walls could talk.

I really wish I could tell people I live in the building with the horse mural. In a world with no addresses, this would be most convenient.

Produce stands in the city.

Monday, November 5, 2012

This Albanian Life: My Neighborhood on a Week Night

Tirana, from our living room window

This is biased, but my favorite place in Tirana is my neighborhood. I live near a hectic round about called Zogu i Zi, and I cross it twice a day as I trek to and from work. I can't say this is something I enjoy, and I'm always glad when I cross it at the end of the day and head towards the little alley that meets up with the sidewalk.

The Zogu- my arch nemesis

Once I turn off the main street and step into the zig zaggity network of alleys and cut throughs and skinny streets that spider themselves into the shape of my neighborhood, I feel at home. The traffic noise fades out as I move further into tightly knit buildings, and the cars move through this area with more caution out of necessity, weaving through produce stands and pedestrians, and dodging potholes ready to eat their bumpers.

I pass the cafe where the taxi cabs park lopsided on the sidewalk, their right wheels hitched up over the curb, the left leaning into the street. Despite the fact that I pass this way every workday, twice a day, the sleepy eyed men still say "Taxi" to me every time I walk by. It's not an eager proclamation, or a question as to my need for a ride, but rather a statement of fact as to the existence of their car and its purpose. "Taxi" said in that way sounds like "I have a car, and it's a taxi, in case you were wondering. And if you were wondering, and if you need a ride, you can talk to me about it. If not, it's fine, I'll just continue to nap in my car/drink coffee/smoke this cigarette." I appreciate the laid back sales approach, even if the obliviousness to my permanent presence in the neighborhood is wrapped around it.

I continue on my way until the road curves to the right, and opens up into a larger space where several little roads feed awkwardly into a misshapen paved area that lends itself to organic parking lots that change shape each day. The power lines multiply above my head, stretching like a loom and tunneling together into snarls and knots at the top of randomly placed poles. The effect is something akin to a twisted, industrial May pole. Sometimes the lines dip down and sag to graze near the top of my head, in other places they have been gathered together and pinned aside with homemade restraints. There is a hot pink beauty shop in the first floor of the building to my left, with a dusty mama dog curled up on the marble steps. She sleeps through the sound of the women inside, talking loudly over bad pop music, while the little girls play with dolls on the floor. The beauty shop seems less like a place of business and more like the scene of a teenage girls' bathroom before prom- patrons and workers are hard to tell apart, as everyone crowds around the mirrors. Some of the women blow dry their own wet hair as they wait for the stylist to finish with another woman. The mama dog sits up to investigate the old woman squatting on the street, fanning the flames of a tiny grill. Once the flames are smoldering she'll put corn on the smoky grate, or nuts, and next to her is a box of sunflower seeds, shiny black petals you can buy by the paper cone. A secondhand shoe store squats in the background,  almost comically stuffed with worn boots and dress shoes, floppy sneakers and scuffed heels. I have never seen anyone really working or buying here, but it seems to be a popular place to stand in front of and chat.

If I went left I would find a grocery store and the secondhand shop run by the gentleman we call Dusty Dude. His shop is open to the street and thus to the Tirana grit, so anything purchased from his store is sure to be covered in a fine layer of dust. This is nothing a quick rinse can't solve, and he's friendly and has reasonable prices, so we frequent his shop for household needs regardless. From his shop, Tiara has scored 8 packs of cards for math games for 400 leke- a steal to be sure. Since I don't need anything I follow the road as it arches slowly to the right, sliding in between double parked cars and stepping onto a half finished (or half demolished, who can say) stone sidewalk grown furry with patches of returning grass. A creaky, tin-roofed lean to shades a gathering of old men in hats, huddled around warped wooden tables. They sit on over turned buckets or long benches, engrossed in a game of dominoes which I have never seen start or end- it is always just in progress. The buildings huddled wagon circle style around this area are old, their exteriors studded with sketchy looking balconies rimmed with pots full of plants. Laundry blows in the breeze above the plants, and ever more power lines criss cross through it all.

The road straightens out and I walk past the densely packed bakeries, the fish shops, and the produce stands. At the small street next to the woman we call Watermelon (because she gave us a sweet deal on a watermelon) the real sidewalk begins, and I am now on my block. Trees pop up to my left, boxed in by concrete borders that serve no real purpose other than to trip you, and thrift stores, pharmacies, tailors, and the ever ubiquitous bar cafes crop up on my right. My neighborhood has stores on the bottom floor capped off with multi story apartment buildings on top, a popular style in new development and one I favor because it makes life so much easier. On my errand days I walk the row of streets, stopping at the grocery store, the bakery, the produce stands, and finally at the store run by the kind man we call Downstairs Dude*. His shop steps are right next to the steps of my building, and they are heaped with a small selection of produce. I get bananas from him, as well as large jugs of water. Bobby and Scott get their beer from him, and we all get ice cream from his freezer for late night snacks. On the weekends his son can be found working with him. He's been there for me from the beginning, when he had to give me my total by typing the numbers into his calculator, and now I like to think he's kind of proud of me when he tells me my total and I understand and give him correct change. I pay the water and electric bill to him as well, which is a much appreciated convenience. The internet cafe is one door down from my building, and the man who runs it never fails to smile, wave, and greet me, or Scott, or Bobby with an exuberant "Hello, my friends!" if he happens to be on the sidewalk.

Laden with jugs of water and a sack of whatever we might need, I climb the stairs to our apartment. If I'm lucky, the lights will be on in the stairway. If I'm not, they'll be burned out. If I'm really unlucky they'll be burned out and the cleaning women will have just mopped the steps, making them a marble death trap. The apartment right below us usually has the same inexplicable things waiting on its doorstep- a water bottle filled with yogurt drink next to well worn houseshoes. The fire extinguisher box is broken and empty, so someone uses it as a plastic bag holder for trips to the store. I end up at my door, which is right next to my co-worker, Scott's, door, and drop off anything I've been forgetting to give him. Sometimes we'll just leave both of our doors open, the boys will have a beer, and we'll share some food. Other times Scott comes over and we jam out to Garth Brooks' greatest hits while "lesson planning." If Scott has a couch surfer, he or she will join us and we'll listen to their travels and plans. Sometimes we'll all share the couch surfer's "Thank you for letting me stay in your house food", which has up to this point always been delicious. I'm still campaigning for an Iron Chef Couchsurfer competition. So far, the tiramisu has won my heart, although the onion pie is a close second.

Scott, sharing his kitchen and the delicious thank you food made by his couch surfer

If the windows are open and there is a soccer game we can hear explosions of cheers from the gamblers down the street watching on a projection screen, and if there has been a wedding, fireworks will pop in the distance. This is usually when I try to take a shower and realize I've forgotten to turn on the hot water heater, so I switch it on, at which point I'm sure to step in the perpetual puddle of water that creeps out from underneath the washing machine. The kids galloping over our heads remind me that it's a school night, but I have almost gotten to where I forgive them their insanely loud play that rattles my ceilings. Almost.

*Yes, these nicknames are ridiculous.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Macedonia Part II: Oh, Ohrid

Spoiler alert- I loved Ohrid. I'm sure you can't tell by my face full of joy

We said goodbye to Vishni and continued on to our final destination, Ohrid. The GPS easily led us to Ohrid, and then things got a little difficult. The Old Town is made up of levels of stone terraces, so the yard of one house might be a bit higher than the roof of another. This really threw off the GPS, but the same problem happens in the U.S. with raised highways, so this is to be expected. Once we found our way through the gates of the old town we parked in a make-shift lot in front of the ancient theater and then set off on foot. Our apartment for the weekend, in Villa Ohrid, took some finding, but once we discovered it we saw it was close to where we had originally parked. Since it was only 11:30 no one was there. We decided to wander around and find lunch and walked straight into the heart of the Old Town, St. Sophia church and courtyard, a mere 5 minute’s downhill winding walk from our apartment. The weather was sunny but cool, the air was fresh and clean, the birds were singing, and the church was beautiful. Restaurant Sveta Sofija was open for lunch, so we sat on the outdoor patio overlooking the courtyard. I had done some restaurant research on Ohrid and Sveta Sofija consistently came up as fantastic, and it did not disappoint. We passed bites around the table, sharing everything and pronouncing it all amazing. We took our time, eating, drinking, talking, and breathing in the fresh air and the sunshine.

Life is good when you have good people to share it with

Feeling left out without alcohol props, we borrowed the boys' beer.

The stone stairs that led us to the center

Given the idyllic circumstances, of course we immediately fell in love with Macedonia, repeating over and over how calm it felt. Ohrid and her streets were all but empty. It was clear we were visiting in the off-season, which suited us all just fine. There were a few men gathered drinking coffee on the opposite side of the courtyard, the cats kept us company begging for fish under the table, and our waiter came ‘round to re-fill our glasses. These little knots of activity took place in a strangely silent Old Town. Instead of feeling deserted, though, it felt peaceful. I imagined the streets filled with lake-bound tourists in layers of bathing suits and summer clothes, eating gelato and heading to the beach for drinks and swimming. A few shops discreetly advertising para-sailing an scuba diving were darkened, now that the lake was inhospitable to such pursuits, but I much preferred having Ohrid in a quiet season over the ability to swim in the lake.

I think we walked this hill about 100 times. The theater is directly to the left out of frame.

Another one of many narrow staircases slicing downward through the terraced stone streets

Some tourist destinations feel lacking without the energy of so many people, as though the buildings have no purpose but to be filled with souvenirs and postcard stands, but Ohrid didn’t feel that way at all. It seemed as though Ohrid was just Ohrid, people or not. The buildings were not made to please the eye of those on vacation- the streets and stairs and stone houses had been built hundreds of years ago. I liked that it felt like a real place instead of an amusement park- it was interesting even in the off-season when so many of the diversions of vacation and the tourists seeking them are absent.

After a long lunch we headed back to Villa Ohrid to check in. We couldn’t believe our luck when we saw the room. Kiwis covered the roof of the porch and the wall along the walkway to the back door. There was a large porch overlooking our own little grassy yard, and beyond that, the misty lake shining under the sun.

Turn right at the kiwis, left at the figs, and stop when you get to the porch overlooking the lake.

Grass? Is that... you? Oh, how I've missed your face.

From our porch

It was a proper apartment, with a separate living room, kitchen area, bathroom, and one bedroom. The place was spotlessly clean and had what looked to be brand new furniture and bedding. It comfortably slept all 5 of us between two double beds and a large pull out recliner that transformed into a single bed. Between our first impression of the Old Town and the awesome apartment it was clear this vacation was exactly what city worn travelers like us were looking for.

We had no plans for the weekend other than the hike and ending up in Ohrid, so we set out that evening just to wander the streets. Ohrid has all the charm of the funky city infrastructure of places like Venice or the tiny cities of Cinque Terre carved into cliffs- cobblestone streets, narrow stone staircases, terraced neighborhoods, thin winding alleys, and random hills that are incredibly steep. Flowers and fruit seem to burst out of every seam, from fig and olive and persimmon trees to kiwi vines draped across roofs to grape vines running along wall tops. Flowers hang out of pots and stretch from between the rocks in the walls, they line the stone streets and soften the edges, or wind themselves around the trees filled with fruit. Malwine said “It’s like the Garden of Eden, you can eat everything!” That about sums it up.

Kiwis, in October. Oh, Mediterranean climate, you fox.

That is an ERMAGERD, FERGS! face

And then, of course, there is the lake. The banks of the lake have been occupied for about 2,400 years, and I can understand why people have wanted to live near such water for so long. It is enormous, ringed with hills and mountains, crystal clear, and often covered in layers of mist that blend with the clouds. When the sun is piercing through the mist and clouds and reflecting off the lake it creates a view that I would call magical if it wouldn't be such a cliché, so I’ll say I don’t know what to call it. It made me calm just looking at it.

We walked along the boardwalk tracing the shore and ended up at a small pebbly beach. A restaurant sat at the base of the shore side cliffs, with a wooden balcony above it jutting out from the rocks. We sat on the balcony to watch the sunset over lake, and those partaking had Macedonian wine.

Once the sun was gone we set off along the water in the opposite direction of home until we found a walking street lined with shops and restaurants. This was the part of  Ohrid that reminded me of Nice- somehow this commercial avenue didn’t feel hectic or rushed, even though there were blocks and blocks of places to spend money. The night ended at Cosa Nostra, a solid pizza place with the best banana split I’ve ever had- which was fortunate, since it was also Malwine’s first.

Ohrid was also nice enough to give us the perfect album cover for our light rock Christian record

The next morning Malwine headed to our pebbly sunset beach to enjoy the solitude and a book, and the rest of us set off on some leisurely hiking around Old Town. It’s not hard to do a greatest hits of Ohrid’s Old Town- signs are helpful but not obnoxious, and the Old Town is not large. Tsar Samuil’s fortress seemed like it was right around the corner from the ancient theater (albeit up a very long hill); an easy, tree lined path took us right to the stunning St. John at Kaneo (Sveti Jovan Kaneo) church on a cliff overlooking the lake, and winding back brought us to St. Clement. Looping further back to the theater and beyond we left through the gates of Old Town to walk the outer wall. With no time limits, plans, or expectations we still managed to cover most of Old Town, and re-trace our steps several times, before late afternoon.

From the fortress' walls

Heading to St. John at Kaneo

St. John at Kaneo as we said goodbye to it 

The gate into Old Town

The ancient theater and a misty Lake Ohrid

Our group reunited for a late lunch at Damar, which was right next to Restaurant Sveta Sofija and also incredible. One thing I have missed since moving to Albania is a variety of food, and it was so nice to be able to order a myriad of plates that were totally different, filled with vegetables, and presented in interesting ways. The "vegetable pan" was my favorite dish there.

Vegetable Pan- not what the description would lead you to believe, still fantastic


It is so beautiful I can BARELY MOVE

We decided to repeat our sunset watch over the lake, and took another night walk. Our last night ended with a dessert and wine feast at Sveta Sofija, and an inappropriate salad appropriately named "Sexy Salad".

Two scoops of chocolate ice cream on top of a bed of mixed nuts, into which a banana is stuck. And topped with whipped cream and honey. Subtlety, broken.

I'm like a teenaged girl with a crush on a Tiger Beat hottie here, you guys, but I can't stop heaping effusive priase on Ohrid. It is one of the most pleasant places to simply wander. I’m sure much of this was due to the absence of crowds, the perfect weather, the fantastic food, and my fellow travelers. Ohrid is the kind of place one goes to write a book, or paint on a back porch overlooking the lake, or do yoga at sunrise, or sleep in a hammock. If you’re looking to not have a care in the world, in other words, find a way to get to the Old Town. I’m sure far more people have described it far more eloquently than I have, but it’s truly that charming and enjoyable. It was a pleasure to spend time there, in the truest sense of the word. I have so many places “on my list” that there are very few I would say this about, but Ohrid- and Macedonia, in general- get my vote for a return visit.

Roof dog wants you to come to Ohrid

So does balancing cat